The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 3: The Home Life of Alexis Daubrecq
When Daubrecq the deputy came in from lunch on the day after the police had searched his house he was stopped by Clemence, his portress, who told him that she had found a cook who could be thoroughly relied on.
The cook arrived a few minutes later and produced first-rate characters, signed by people with whom it was easy to take up her references. She was a very active woman, although of a certain age, and agreed to do the work of the house by herself, without the help of a man-servant, this being a condition upon which Daubrecq insisted.
Her last place was with a member of the Chamber of Deputies, Comte Saulevat, to whom Daubrecq at once telephoned. The count's steward gave her a perfect character, and she was engaged.
As soon as she had fetched her trunk, she set to work and cleaned and scrubbed until it was time to cook the dinner.
Daubrecq dined and went out.
At eleven o'clock, after the portress had gone to bed, the cook cautiously opened the garden-gate. A man came up.
"Is that you?" she asked.
"Yes, it's I, Lupin."
She took him to her bedroom on the third floor, overlooking the garden, and at once burst into lamentations:
"More of your tricks and nothing but tricks! Why can't you leave me alone, instead of sending me to do your dirty work?"
"How can I help it, you dear old Victoire? [*] When I want a person of respectable appearance and incorruptible morals, I think of you. You ought to be flattered."
* See The Hollow Needle by Maurice Leblanc, translated by
Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, and later volumes of the Lupin
"That's all you care about me!" she cried. "You run me into danger once more; and you think it's funny!"
"What are you risking?"
"How do you mean, what am I risking? All my characters are false."
"Characters are always false."
"And suppose M. Daubrecq finds out? Suppose he makes inquiries?"
"He has made inquiries."
"Eh? What's that?"
"He has telephoned to the steward of Comte Saulevat, in whose service you say that you have had the honour of being."
"There, you see, I'm done for!"
"The count's steward could not say enough in your praise."
"He does not know me."
"But I know him. I got him his situation with Comte Saulevat. So you understand..."
Victoire seemed to calm down a little:
"Well," she said, "God's will be done ... or rather yours. And what do you expect me to do in all this?"
"First, to put me up. You were my wet-nurse once. You can very well give me half your room now. I'll sleep in the armchair."
"Next? To supply me with such food as I want."
"Next? To undertake, with me and under my direction, a regular series of searches with a view..."
"To discovering the precious object of which I spoke to you."
"A crystal stopper."
"A crystal stopper ... Saints above! A nice business! And, if we don't find your confounded stopper, what then?"
Lupin took her gently by the arm and, in a serious voice:
"If we don't find it, Gilbert, young Gilbert whom you know and love, will stand every chance of losing his head; and so will Vaucheray."
"Vaucheray I don't mind ... a dirty rascal like him! But Gilbert..."
"Have you seen the papers this evening? Things are looking worse than ever. Vaucheray, as might be expected, accuses Gilbert of stabbing the valet; and it so happens that the knife which Vaucheray used belonged to Gilbert. That came out this morning. Whereupon Gilbert, who is intelligent in his way, but easily frightened, blithered and launched forth into stories and lies which will end in his undoing. That's how the matter stands. Will you help me?"
Thenceforth, for several days, Lupin moulded his existence upon Daubrecq's, beginning his investigations the moment the deputy left the house. He pursued them methodically, dividing each room into sections which he did not abandon until he had been through the tiniest nooks and corners and, so to speak, exhausted every possible device.
Victoire searched also. And nothing was forgotten. Table-legs, chair-rungs, floor-boards, mouldings, mirror- and picture-frames, clocks, plinths, curtain-borders, telephone-holders and electric fittings: everything that an ingenious imagination could have selected as a hiding-place was overhauled.
And they also watched the deputy's least actions, his most unconscious movements, the expression of his face, the books which he read and the letters which he wrote.
It was easy enough. He seemed to live his life in the light of day. No door was ever shut. He received no visits. And his existence worked with mechanical regularity. He went to the Chamber in the afternoon, to the club in the evening.
"Still," said Lupin, "there must be something that's not orthodox behind all this."
"There's nothing of the sort," moaned Victoire. "You're wasting your time and we shall be bowled out."
The presence of the detectives and their habit of walking up and down outside the windows drove her mad. She refused to admit that they were there for any other purpose than to trap her, Victoire. And, each time that she went shopping, she was quite surprised that one of those men did not lay his hand upon her shoulder.
One day she returned all upset. Her basket of provisions was shaking on her arm.
"What's the matter, my dear Victoire?" said Lupin. "You're looking green."
"Green? I dare say I do. So would you look green..."
She had to sit down and it was only after making repeated efforts that she succeeded in stuttering:
"A man ... a man spoke to me ... at the fruiterer's."
"By jingo! Did he want you to run away with him?"
"No, he gave me a letter..."
"Then what are you complaining about? It was a love-letter, of course!"
"No. 'It's for your governor, ' said he. 'My governor?' I said. 'Yes, ' he said, 'for the gentleman who's staying in your room.'"
This time, Lupin had started:
"Give it here," he said, snatching the letter from her. The envelope bore no address. But there was another, inside it, on which he read:
"Monsieur Arsene Lupin,
"The devil!" he said. "This is a bit thick!" He tore open the second envelope. It contained a sheet of paper with the following words, written in large capitals:
"Everything you are doing is useless and dangerous ... Give it up."
Victoire uttered one moan and fainted. As for Lupin, he felt himself blush up to his eyes, as though he had been grossly insulted. He experienced all the humiliation which a duellist would undergo if he heard the most secret advice which he had received from his seconds repeated aloud by a mocking adversary.
However, he held his tongue. Victoire went back to her work. As for him, he remained in his room all day, thinking.
That night he did not sleep.
And he kept saying to himself:
"What is the good of thinking? I am up against one of those problems which are not solved by any amount of thought. It is certain that I am not alone in the matter and that, between Daubrecq and the police, there is, in addition to the third thief that I am, a fourth thief who is working on his own account, who knows me and who reads my game clearly. But who is this fourth thief? And am I mistaken, by any chance? And ... oh, rot! ... Let's get to sleep!..."
But he could not sleep; and a good part of the night went in this way.
At four o'clock in the morning he seemed to hear a noise in the house. He jumped up quickly and, from the top of the staircase, saw Daubrecq go down the first flight and turn toward the garden.
A minute later, after opening the gate, the deputy returned with a man whose head was buried in an enormous fur collar and showed him into his study.
Lupin had taken his precautions in view of any such contingency. As the windows of the study and those of his bedroom, both of which were at the back of the house, overlooked the garden, he fastened a rope-ladder to his balcony, unrolled it softly and let himself down by it until it was level with the top of the study windows.
These windows were closed by shutters; but, as they were bowed, there remained a semi-circular space at the top; and Lupin, though he could not hear, was able to see all that went on inside.
He then realized that the person whom he had taken for a man was a woman: a woman who was still young, though her dark hair was mingled with gray; a tall woman, elegantly but quite unobtrusively dressed, whose handsome features bore the expression of weariness and melancholy which long suffering gives.
"Where the deuce have I seen her before?" Lupin asked himself. "For I certainly know that face, that look, that expression."
She stood leaning against the table, listening impassively to Daubrecq, who was also standing and who was talking very excitedly. He had his back turned to Lupin; but Lupin, leaning forward, caught sight of a glass in which the deputy's image was reflected. And he was startled to see the strange look in his eyes, the air of fierce and brutal desire with which Daubrecq was staring at his visitor.
It seemed to embarrass her too, for she sat down with lowered lids. Then Daubrecq leant over her and it appeared as though he were ready to fling his long arms, with their huge hands, around her. And, suddenly, Lupin perceived great tears rolling down the woman's sad face.
Whether or not it was the sight of those tears that made Daubrecq lose his head, with a brusque movement he clutched the woman and drew her to him. She repelled him, with a violence full of hatred. And, after a brief struggle, during which Lupin caught a glimpse of the man's bestial and contorted features, the two of them stood face to face, railing at each other like mortal enemies.
Then they stopped. Daubrecq sat down. There was mischief in his face, and sarcasm as well. And he began to talk again, with sharp taps on the table, as though he were dictating terms.
She no longer stirred. She sat haughtily in her chair and towered over him, absent-minded, with roaming eyes. Lupin, captivated by that powerful and sorrowful countenance, continued to watch her; and he was vainly seeking to remember of what or of whom she reminded him, when he noticed that she had turned her head slightly and that she was imperceptibly moving her arm.
And her arm strayed farther and farther and her hand crept along the table and Lupin saw that, at the end of the table, there stood a water-bottle with a gold-topped stopper. The hand reached the water-bottle, felt it, rose gently and seized the stopper. A quick movement of the head, a glance, and the stopper was put back in its place. Obviously, it was not what the woman hoped to find.
"Dash it!" said Lupin. "She's after the crystal stopper too! The matter is becoming more complicated daily; there's no doubt about it."
But, on renewing his observation of the visitor, he was astounded to note the sudden and unexpected expression of her countenance, a terrible, implacable, ferocious expression. And he saw that her hand was continuing its stealthy progress round the table and that, with an uninterrupted and crafty sliding movement, it was pushing back books and, slowly and surely, approaching a dagger whose blade gleamed among the scattered papers.
It gripped the handle.
Daubrecq went on talking. Behind his back, the hand rose steadily, little by little; and Lupin saw the woman's desperate and furious eyes fixed upon the spot in the neck where she intended to plant the knife:
"You're doing a very silly thing, fair lady," thought Lupin.
And he already began to turn over in his mind the best means of escaping and of taking Victoire with him.
She hesitated, however, with uplifted arm. But it was only a momentary weakness. She clenched her teeth. Her whole face, contracted with hatred, became yet further convulsed. And she made the dread movement.
At the same instant Daubrecq crouched and, springing from his seat, turned and seized the woman's frail wrist in mid-air.
Oddly enough, he addressed no reproach to her, as though the deed which she had attempted surprised him no more than any ordinary, very natural and simple act. He shrugged his shoulders, like a man accustomed to that sort of danger, and strode up and down in silence.
She had dropped the weapon and was now crying, holding her head between her hands, with sobs that shook her whole frame.
He next came up to her and said a few words, once more tapping the table as he spoke.
She made a sign in the negative and, when he insisted, she, in her turn, stamped her foot on the floor and exclaimed, loud enough for Lupin to hear:
"Never! ... Never!..."
Thereupon, without another word, Daubrecq fetched the fur cloak which she had brought with her and hung it over the woman's shoulders, while she shrouded her face in a lace wrap.
And he showed her out.
Two minutes later, the garden-gate was locked again. "Pity I can't run after that strange person," thought Lupin, "and have a chat with her about the Daubrecq bird. Seems to me that we two could do a good stroke of business together."
In any case, there was one point to be cleared up: Daubrecq the deputy, whose life was so orderly, so apparently respectable, was in the habit of receiving visits at night, when his house was no longer watched by the police.
He sent Victoire to arrange with two members of his gang to keep watch for several days. And he himself remained awake next night.
As on the previous morning, he heard a noise at four o'clock. As on the previous morning, the deputy let some one in.
Lupin ran down his ladder and, when he came to the free space above the shutters, saw a man crawling at Daubrecq's feet, flinging his arms round Daubrecq's knees in frenzied despair and weeping, weeping convulsively.
Daubrecq, laughing, pushed him away repeatedly, but the man clung to him. He behaved almost like one out of his mind and, at last, in a genuine fit of madness, half rose to his feet, took the deputy by the throat and flung him back in a chair. Daubrecq struggled, powerless at first, while his veins swelled in his temples. But soon, with a strength far beyond the ordinary, he regained the mastery and deprived his adversary of all power of movement. Then, holding him with one hand, with the other he gave him two great smacks in the face.
The man got up, slowly. He was livid and could hardly stand on his legs. He waited for a moment, as though to recover his self-possession. Then, with a terrifying calmness, he drew a revolver from his pocket and levelled it at Daubrecq.
Daubrecq did not flinch. He even smiled, with a defiant air and without displaying more excitement than if he had been aimed at with a toy pistol.
The man stood for perhaps fifteen or twenty seconds, facing his enemy, with outstretched arm. Then, with the same deliberate slowness, revealing a self-control which was all the more impressive because it followed upon a fit of extreme excitement, he put up his revolver and, from another pocket, produced his note-case.
Daubrecq took a step forward.
The man opened the pocketbook. A sheaf of banknotes appeared in sight.
Daubrecq seized and counted them. They were thousand-franc notes, and there were thirty of them.
The man looked on, without a movement of revolt, without a protest. He obviously understood the futility of words. Daubrecq was one of those who do not relent. Why should his visitor waste time in beseeching him or even in revenging himself upon him by uttering vain threats and insults? He had no hope of striking that unassailable enemy. Even Daubrecq's death would not deliver him from Daubrecq.
He took his hat and went away.
At eleven o'clock in the morning Victoire, on returning from her shopping, handed Lupin a note from his accomplices.
He opened it and read:
"The man who came to see Daubrecq last night is Langeroux the deputy, leader of the independent left. A poor man, with a large family."
"Come," said Lupin, "Daubrecq is nothing more nor less than a blackmailer; but, by Jupiter, he has jolly effective ways of going to work!"
Events tended to confirm Lupin's supposition. Three days later he saw another visitor hand Daubrecq an important sum of money. And, two days after that, one came and left a pearl necklace behind him.
The first was called Dachaumont, a senator and ex-cabinet-minister. The second was the Marquis d'Albufex, a Bonapartist deputy, formerly chief political agent in France of Prince Napoleon.
The scene, in each of these cases, was very similar to Langeroux the deputy's interview, a violent tragic scene, ending in Daubrecq's victory.
"And so on and so forth," thought Lupin, when he received these particulars. "I have been present at four visits. I shall know no more if there are ten, or twenty, or thirty ... It is enough for me to learn the names of the visitors from my friends on sentry-go outside. Shall I go and call on them? ... What for? They have no reason to confide in me ... On the other hand, am I to stay on here, delayed by investigations which lead to nothing and which Victoire can continue just as well without me?"
He was very much perplexed. The news of the inquiry into the case of Gilbert and Vaucheray was becoming worse and worse, the days were slipping by, and not an hour passed without his asking himself, in anguish, whether all his efforts--granting that he succeeded--would not end in farcical results, absolutely foreign to the aim which he was pursuing.
For, after all, supposing that he did fathom Daubrecq's underhand dealings, would that give him the means of rescuing Gilbert and Vaucheray?
That day an incident occurred which put an end to his indecision. After lunch Victoire heard snatches of a conversation which Daubrecq held with some one on the telephone. Lupin gathered, from what Victoire reported, that the deputy had an appointment with a lady for half-past eight and that he was going to take her to a theatre:
"I shall get a pit-tier box, like the one we had six weeks ago," Daubrecq had said. And he added, with a laugh, "I hope that I shall not have the burglars in during that time."
There was not a doubt in Lupin's mind. Daubrecq was about to spend his evening in the same manner in which he had spent the evening six weeks ago, while they were breaking into his villa at Enghien. To know the person whom he was to meet and perhaps thus to discover how Gilbert and Vaucheray had learnt that Daubrecq would be away from eight o'clock in the evening until one o'clock in the morning: these were matters of the utmost importance.
Lupin left the house in the afternoon, with Victoire's assistance. He knew through her that Daubrecq was coming home for dinner earlier than usual.
He went to his flat in the Rue Chateaubriand, telephoned for three of his friends, dressed and made himself up in his favourite character of a Russian prince, with fair hair and moustache and short-cut whiskers.
The accomplices arrived in a motor-car.
At that moment, Achille, his man, brought him a telegram, addressed to M. Michel Beaumont, Rue Chateaubriand, which ran:
"Do not come to theatre this evening. Danger of your intervention spoiling everything."